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The Impact of Heroin and the Numbers Behind the Addiction

Updated on March 3, 2015
Heroin is a very highly addictive recreational drug, responsible for a large amount of misery and mortality
Heroin is a very highly addictive recreational drug, responsible for a large amount of misery and mortality | Source


Heroin is one of the most dangerous recreational drugs that a person can take. It combines a potent impact on someone's neurological, psychological and physical well-being with a very high probability of long-term addiction.

In this article we explore the reasons behind the addiction, the effects of heroin, how people can recover from heroin abuse and some of the statistics on addiction in the United States and around the world. We'll look at:

  • The effects of taking heroin
  • Dependency and addiction
  • Recovering from heroin dependency and addiction
  • Statistics on heroin use

Heroin can be taken in several different ways, although the preferred way is injection
Heroin can be taken in several different ways, although the preferred way is injection | Source

The effects of taking heroin

Heroin can be taken in several ways:

  • Intravenously, by injecting it directly into the bloodstream.
  • By eating it.
  • By smoking it.

When heroin is taken, it causes a 'downer' effect in the addict. This occurs because the heroin enters the brain from the blood and converts into morphine. The morphine then quickly binds itself to the 'opioid receptors' in the brain.

The chemical changes and binding of morphine to these receptors blocks the brain's ability to feel pain. This creates a 'rush' feeling of both relaxation and euphoria, combined with a heavy feeling in the extremities, a dry mouth and flushing of the skin. The addictive nature of heroin is partly due to the speed with which this rush happens and also because the effects of a rush can be over relatively quickly and the addict wants to recreate the feeling.

After the rush is over, an addict will feel extremely sleepy. Heroin will cause thinking, memory and other mental functions to become very clouded. It also reduces the function of the central nervous system, including breathing, heartbeat and other autonomous functions. It is due to this depression of the nervous system that mortality rates among heroin users are very high.

Dependency and addiction

Because heroin is such a potent drug, it easily creates dependency and addiction in people that use it. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin can occur extremely quickly, just a few hours after a heroin high, this means that addicts will often take heroin on a very regular basis to avoid the feeling of the 'come down'.

Behaviors often associated with heroin addicts include the following:

  • Confusion with basic tasks and particularly with complex problems and higher thinking.
  • Inability to feel physical or emotional pain.
  • Suppression of reactions and normal responses to stimuli.
  • A lack of reasoning.
  • Disorientation and lack of awareness.
  • Cycling between extreme drowsiness, sleep and being hyper-alert.
  • Lying and deceit.
  • Lack of motivation and indications of apathy and not caring.

Once someone has taken heroin, it is very easy to become addicted to it
Once someone has taken heroin, it is very easy to become addicted to it | Source

Recovering from heroin dependency and addiction

Recovery from heroin addiction must be overseen by a specialist, normally in a dedicated drug rehabilitation and treatment center. The recovering addict will typically be resident at the center for a period of several weeks to several months, during this time they will receive various treatments including:

  • Medication to help them replace heroin with less harmful alternatives such as Methadone
  • Treatment to reduce their intake of the alternative medication altogether.
  • Medication to deal with the side-effects of heroin withdrawal.
  • One on one counseling with a specialist drug counselor.
  • Group therapy sessions.
  • Other treatments as deemed helpful by the rehabilitation center.

The chemical structure of heroin
The chemical structure of heroin | Source

Statistics on heroin use

Because the use of heroin is illegal, many statistics on its use and prevalence are estimates, based on assumptions and educated opinion. Due to this, some numbers reported around heroin use can be contradictory.

  • Overall use of opium-like substances - It is estimated that around 14 million people around the world use opioids of some description, with around 9 million using heroin.
  • Heroin use in the United States - Figures on use in the US are often contradictory, due to the difficulty of obtaining information; a 2007 survey estimated that there were 150,000 addicts in the US, whereas other estimates said that the figure could be up to 900,000.
  • Occasional users - It is believed that there could be up to 1.2 million people that take heroin on an occasional basis.
  • Addiction percentages - A study from just over ten years ago stated that around half of the people that used heroin in the previous year were addicted to the drug and taking it regularly. An addict normally takes between 150 mg and 250 mg of heroin a day.
  • Admission statistics - Almost 20% of admissions to drug and alcohol treatment centers in the US are for recovery from heroin addiction.
  • Where heroin comes from - Around 90% of opium, the basis for heroin, comes from Afghanistan.
  • Deaths due to opiates - It is believed that opiates, mainly heroin, are responsible for around 80% of all deaths related to recreational drugs.

The how and why of heroin addiction

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In closing

The abuse of heroin can have a devastating impact on a person's quality of life, but with the right treatment, addicts can often make a complete recovery.

If you suspect that someone you know could be a heroin addict, it is vital that they receive professional medical and psychological help as soon as possible.


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